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Published: April 6th 2009
Being Chased by the Bacon
You’re in the middle of nowhere in a foreign country and you’ve just reached the end of a dead end road; a man comes up to you and introduces himself as a traffic Police man. The Police in this country don’t follow the rules - they make them. You half don’t believe he’s a Police man due to his lack of obvious uniform and dodgy looking ID card, but know you’re in the wrong - you’re riding without a Vietnamese license, and you’ve a good idea what he wants to do - but nobody is around - what do you do?
Making the correct response in that situation perhaps seems obvious sitting in your arm armchair reading this; you play ball and just hope it doesn’t end up costing too much. Actually being in that situation with adrenaline starting to pump through your veins might well change your perspective as we found out.
I‘ll show some humility from the outset and say what fools we were! Not only had we ventured a into no-man’s-land at the crux of the Vietnam, Cambodia Laos border and into a land largely inhabited by tribal peoples whom the government probably wasn’t too keen on us visiting, we’d done so riding a motorbike for which we have no license to ride.
At the end of a dead-end road, middle of nowhere, 35km back to Kon Tum from which we’d started, we were approached by a man wearing a semiformal green uniform, aviators and a motorbike helmet, but otherwise no obvious sign he was a police man. We assumed the worst and muttered a few things between us to the effect of ‘let’s get out of here… now!’
As we casually walked back to the motorbike, smiling at the man, he opens his wallet and draws from a selection of different ID cards one proclaiming he’s a traffic police man. We play ignorant and say ‘no hotel thanks; we’re going back to Kon Tum!’. His lack of ‘officiality’ made us both silently question his legitimacy - but this is Vietnam, it’s not our country and we don’t know the way things work here so perhaps we were foolish to doubt him.
Split second decision and we decided to ignore him and hit the road - fast - hoping he would leave us alone. Our vein effort was halted when he sped after us and stopped in front of our bike. His first gesture was to walk over and snatch the keys from our bike, as simultaneously he began to attempt phoning someone. Oh s*#t! we we’re starting to think. I’d read the night before about what’s been happening in Nha Trang and Mui Ne on the coast.
Apparently the Vietnamese police have been stopping foreigners, who’ve hired bikes, then confiscating and impounding their bike for a month whilst also levying a $50 fine. This therefore leaving the foreigner with a bill for a month’s hire of the bike - all this whilst ignoring local people who simultaneously ride without insurance, in the dark with no lights on, wearing no helmet, drunk, on the wrong side of the road talking on a mobile phone. Just! Well perhaps I exaggerate, but you do see this happen!
In retrospect, I can see how this image imparted into our otherwise rational minds in the instant, and formed a large part in our decision of what to do next. It was a ‘do or die’ situation knowing we’d sped away and hence made any repercussions, should we be caught, worse.
There was nobody around, so I offered him 100,000VND (~$6) thinking a bribe might be his end goal, but to this he resolutely declined.
Rationality disappeared, they say adrenaline is the ‘fight or flight’ hormone; I chose fight, and in a split second I aggressively and determinedly wrestled the keys from his hands. Perhaps our audacity initially stunned him, as afterwards he didn’t bother trying to get them back from me or to impede our path as we both scrambled back onto the bike. He carried on talking on the phone as we fired up the Daelim 100cc and sped away, as fast as one can, two-up on a Daelim 100cc moped, down the hilly and twisty roads we only just arrived by.
We didn’t look back and to this moment we still couldn’t say for definite whether he put up chase or not. We may have heard him beeping his horn behind us, but we may have imagined that, I couldn’t be sure.
Without ever consciously taking any undue risk (as much as one can when riding a motorbike at speed - and though you may lambast my arrogance, I’m no fool when it comes to bikes - I was never going to let us crash) we kept the hammer down for 5km until we suddenly remembered we’d previously passed a police station and hence would have to pass it again - perhaps that was why he didn’t chase? It was one road in, one road out?
By this time rationality had altogether disappeared and we both agreed there would be no stopping, regardless of what evasive manoeuvres may have to be taken. We put the hammer back down and both cursed the fact it was now that we’d somehow managed to end up with the slowest bike we’d hired in all of Vietnam!
We eased off as we approached the police station so as not to attract any unnecessary attention to ourselves and no sooner had we passed, we sped up again, fearing the initial policeman might still be behind us. It’s really quite a nasty feeling knowing you’ve probably just made things a whole lot worse for yourself by speeding away, and that you can’t undo those actions. Should we have handed ourselves in now, the list of crimes we would face would be the same as if we continued and got caught later. We knew this and so decided to take the chance, but felt uneasy and paranoid; always fearing around the next corner would be someone waiting for us.
I don’t know the traffic laws of Vietnam, but assuming they’re similar to the UK, on top of having no license, having now sped away from the policeman twice would constitute two counts of refusing to stop and evading the police. I also physically grappled the keys from his hands, so this would probably constitute assaulting police officer. Since I’d sped away, I would definitely be done for speeding. Because it’s a hired bike we weren’t insured for it (although I’m not sure it’s requisite in Vietnam). To cap it all, I’ve never seen anyone riding as aggressively as we were so we’d probably be charged with dangerous riding too. That’s a lot more crimes than we would have been convicted of if we’d just stopped and heard the music in the first place. Oh dear……….
I think it would be foolish to underestimate the weight on our minds this placed and how much it influenced our course of action thereafter.
Although it seemed we’d managed to lose the initial policeman, any idiot realises a radio travels a damn sight faster than any motorbike, so we knew we weren’t in the clear yet. We still had two more major towns to pass through as well as Kon Tum itself. First town we passed through, with eagle eye we observed two policemen on motorbikes refuelling at the petrol station - but we managed to slip by unnoticed - phew!
After it exiting the town it seemed the end was nigh as we passed a convoy of two police motorbikes and a police pickup truck going the other way. First motorbike didn’t notice us. Second motorbike didn’t notice us. The pickup truck instantly noticed us, banged its horn vigorously and came to a standstill - damn! We didn’t look back to see if they’d turned around and followed us, but this made us realise the initial man must have been a real police officer after all!
Now we really developed lead wrist and hit the throttle hard. We’d been going 60kmh in one direction and they’d been going probably more in the opposite direction so we quickly put some distance into them as we crested the hill exiting town and proceeded to crank the Daelim up to its pitiful terminal velocity of about 80kmh (~50mph). The landscape surrounding Kon Tum is hilly and ascending some of the hills, even with a full speed run up in tuck position to be more aerodynamic, and working the gearbox to milk the engine for all it’s worth, we still often found ourselves cresting the hills at sub 40kmh. Ahhhhh!
We were never sure if the pickup or motorbikes with it had put up chase, the roads were windy and we never looked back to find out, save a few glances in the wing mirrors. Having now been at full throttle for perhaps 10 relentless minutes, another concern quickly dawned upon us as we wondered whether our motorbike could even manage to maintain the pace. Because we’d been thrashing the life out of its meagre and probably poorly maintained engine, I could feel the intense heat the engine was giving off passing between my legs with ever increasing amplitude, and coupled with how slow we’d been cresting the hills, we dreaded the thought that it may be losing compression. If it blew, that really would be game over.
After another 10 paranoid minutes with still no sign of anyone following us, for the sake of our health and the sake of the bike, we decided to ease off and see if we could coast into Kon Tum unnoticed. We were now less than 5km away. This we managed and eventually gave the bike back to its owner, very hot, and now with an occasionally sticking gearbox. We quickly scuppered away to our hotel nearby. Had we got away with it????
Well I can tell you, sitting here writing this blog 6 days later in a different country, we did, but what a nasty escapade we’d both rather not repeat.
We’ve replayed the course of events repeatedly in our heads since, debating what we could have done differently, how we could have dealt with the policeman better, and also the possibility that the ‘policeman’ could have been just an opportunist and we could have imagined everything thereafter in a state of paranoia. I will never be able to say for sure.
I suppose the most important lesson to come from this must be what we would do differently if we were ever unfortunate enough to find ourselves in such a dilemma again. The answer is simple - face the music. Had the bike been confiscated and we been forced to pay a $50 fine and the rental of the bike for a month this might have cost perhaps £200 and a touch of humiliation. As it happened, we luckily got away with it and survived, fine free, to tell the tale, but had we been caught at the very least we would have been made to pay an astronomical fine, or worse, even been forced to spend some time behind bars.
We both agree in retrospect we can’t regret our actions per se
, because ultimately we escaped all consequence, but that doesn’t mean we haven’t learnt anything from the whole episode. Firstly, 100,000VND was never going to be a big enough bribe when considering the government fine of $50 (~800,000VND) which they’d no doubt pocket for themselves anyway. Secondly you might argue it was dangerous, but to be honest, we were never going to crash at such comparatively low speeds and with almost completely empty roads. Perhaps I’m missing the main point though.
The whole debacle started in the first place because we didn’t have a Vietnamese license. This could have easily been obtained in either Saigon or Hanoi for $30 without even having to take a test. We falsely believed the law in Vietnam is still lax, however as I keep reading in other blogs and messages on the internet since, this is changing - fast. We should have paid more attention and done our research instead of just assuming for the better, and better respected the laws of the country we were visiting.
By writing about this here I am in no way glamorising or bragging about the idea of running from the police, I would not encourage anyone to do as we did, I am not trying to sound ‘big and clever’ or whatever other thoughts people may have - I am merely relaying the unfortunate course of events or foolishness found us partaking in, and the unwise decisions we made, in the hope that sensible people out there will heed some advice:
If you want to ride a motorbike in Vietnam, get a Vietnamese license. If you get caught by the police, face the music. We were lucky - you might not be. Getting a license is easy, cheap, and could save you a great deal of hassle as well as having to go through a ridiculous escapade like we did!!!!!
PS. Fret not Mum and Dad. S*@t happens. That’s life. You live you learn!
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